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St. Petersburg bids farewell to lovely lady by bay

ST. PETERSBURG — She was born March 12, 1947, in a city where the breeze feels like silk.

She was a pretty young thing with a green outfield, a dusty diamond, palm trees and peanuts. She cost $300,000 to build, but she had a priceless view of boats gliding by on the bay.

More than 7,000 people showed up on her opening day — baseball legends, big shot writers, moms, dads and kids with dreams. She was named after the enigmatic mayor who, in 1914, brought baseball to the city.

That day, the first spring training game at Al Lang Field, the Cardinals beat the Yankees, 10-5.

For six more decades, teams trained inside her walls. In 1958, fans paid 75 cents to watch Mickey Mantle play center. In 2008, a new generation paid $20 to watch Carl Crawford steal third.

Her star power tarnished over time, but not her charm. On Friday, fans slathered with sunscreen packed her every corner. Local politicians sat perched in an air-conditioned box. The mayor pronounced the day bittersweet. A child screamed for the teams to play ball. They did, one last time on her turf.

And the stadium came to an end, in favor of new beginnings.

• • •

Game day. Noon. Clouds roll in.

In a small, barren office branching off a concrete hallway, Joe Maddon shovels down pregame food. He remembers the first time he saw this field.

It was 1973. He hitchhiked from Tampa to watch the Cardinals play the Mets. He has no idea how he made it.

He walked into the stadium at rightfield and looked out over the water.

"It was slightly religious."

Twenty-five years later, he sits in the belly of the beast as a major league manager. His guys are about to take the field.

Yeah, the ventilation system drives his allergies crazy. But that's not the point. Al Lang has a charm, he says. It's the real deal. Players who say they are old school but pooh-pooh the past when it starts to get rundown — well, they aren't old school at all, are they?

He takes a bite. Folks shuffle by in the hall.

"In this country, we give up on things too soon."

• • •

She endured abuse.

For decades, heat and rain beat down on her. Clodhoppers trampled her stairs and stampeded her stands. Sun sucked the scarlet from the seats and left them mauve. Rats vacationed in her underbelly every winter, and the stench stayed all spring.

In 1977, she got an extreme makeover — this time, she cost $3.5-million. In 1999, she got two new grand staircases, a second berm, extra toilets, concession stands and air conditioning in the press box.

But you try standing outside all those years. See how you look.

Water seeps into her locker rooms when it rains. It gathers in her low areas in foul territory because, at sea level, it has nowhere else to go.

Groundskeepers rise with the sun to care for her. They laser-grade her clay, till her infield, bat down her bases. From the ground, the brown spots in the grass drive them crazy. But from the press box, hey, she looks pretty good for an old gal.

Her friends are fickle. When the weather is pleasant, they turn out in droves. When it gets bad, they slump away. During a particularly rainy 1983, she drew about 79,000 fans all spring training season.

She had room for 100,000.

• • •

Game day, 1 p.m. Billy Heald's laptop is tuned to a weather radar raging with green blobs. Will the rain blow by? Or will it hammer the fans trickling into their seats?

Billy, 57, has played music at the stadium since the 1980s. He's the old-time organ man, except these days, everything is digital. With time, everything gets an update.

A little white fan cools his stacks of computers and swirls the scent from a nearby hotdog. On an average day, Billy figures his music inspires the equivalent of two base hits — when the crowd is amped, the players answer back with runs.

Once, he says, a foul ball flew toward his open booth in the press box. He was able to catch it with one hand and, with the other, play himself some revelry. Then, he tossed the ball to a kid below.

"I'll never forget that," he says, staring out the same window.

As folks make their way through the stands, sprinkles dot their shoulders and a melody plays from the press box.

"I want to know, have you ever seen the rain? &''

• • •

She had a long string of relationships.

The Cardinals. The Yankees. The Mets. The Orioles. They loved her, then left, heading north to their hometowns when the snow melted. But something long term was on the horizon.

For years, talk simmered. Could Tampa Bay, so rich in baseball history, claim something more than spring training?

In 1995, Major League Baseball created an expansion franchise. The players wore green, purple and blue. They had a sea creature for a logo. They didn't always score big — in 2002, they became the first team in years to lose 100-plus games in consecutive seasons.

But they belonged to the bay. They didn't use the warm weather like a cheap doormat. They lived here, played here and trained here.

No matter how bad they fumbled, every spring, she took them back.

At age 50, she got married to the power company. Her name changed.

Around her, a city continued to sprout. High rises and hotels. Starbucks and shopping. She was getting older, not getting any taller. Could she keep up?

Friday, when her team played its last game on her diamond, the players wore a jazzy new logo, a modern color palette. They flashed a cooler, shorter name. They banished the Devil.

The Tampa Bay Rays plan to train in Port Charlotte, and it's unlikely another new team will ever train here. Ninety-four years of spring training in St. Petersburg — poof.

Today, she is 61. Maybe she'll be torn down for a park. Or a $450-million structure with 34,000 seats and a roof that flies open. Politicians and stakeholders will decide all that.

For now, she stares at condo construction across the street. A word hangs from her forehead in red letters.

Progress.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Fans say farewell

For video and audio slideshow of Al Lang's long history, log on to news.tampabay.com

The final game

Thousands attend Friday's final game at Al Lang Field. Local & State, 3B

Rays' moves

The team is closing in on a roster. Sports, 1C

St. Petersburg bids farewell to lovely lady by bay 03/28/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 11:14am]

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